The season is tentatively scheduled to resume on 22 August, but in yet another episode of #ThatsSoHKfootball administrative errors have lead to confusion over which players can play.
The HKFA met on Tuesday afternoon with representatives from the eight Premier League clubs and, notably, First Division club Resources Capital. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss various topics including the schedule for the remaining fixtures, the future of the Sapling Cup, a proposed triple round robin league format for the 2020-21 season and a possible increase to the foreign quota.
However, a document released by FIFA last Thursday, 11 June, threw a wrench into those plans, as well as the summer transfer plans of the various clubs. The HKFA had tentatively set the dates for the summer transfer window to run from 4 August to 26 October. Additionally, they had informed clubs that players who were signed over the summer would be eligible to play immediately, unless they were to face their former club in a cup final.
At the time that the eligibility rules were disclosed, Chan Hiu-ming was furious with what he described as “unfairness.” The Lee Man head coach claimed that to allow players to transfer and play immediately would amount to a “second mid-season window.”
The document, entitled COVID-19 Football Regulatory Issues: FAQs, appears to take the side of Chan’s point of view. On page 19 of the document, FIFA acknowledged that “several member associations (which follow a dual-year calendar) have requested that the ‘first registration period’ for the 2020-21 season begin before the completion of the 2019-20 season, as the realignment of the their football calendar has resulted in a short break between seasons.” The governing body acquiesced to these concerns, however, they stressed that “priority must be given to former clubs to complete their seasons, in order to safeguard the integrity of competitions.”
Thus, it was determined that the first registration window, or summer window, may only overlap with the final four weeks of the 2019-20 season and not, as the HKFA had planned, overlap entirely with the 2019-20 season. Furthermore, any player who transfers during such period, even if they are out of contract, is not permitted to play until the 2020-21 season.
When reached for comment on Monday, several club representatives were less than amused by FIFA’s decision as they had made plans in anticipation of being able to use their new signings immediately. Chan, whose club has released six players to date, laid the blame squarely on the HKFA.
“The HKFA did not follow FIFA’s regulations,” he stated. “I had my reservations (when the HKFA released their rules) and now, FIFA have issued supplemental guidelines. I have no clue what the HKFA will do next because clearly, what they told us before was contrary to FIFA’s guidelines.
“Even if they’re able to get an exemption from FIFA, it won’t change the fact that what they did was completely unprofessional. They need to look at themselves in the mirror.”
On Tuesday, R&F general manager Tyler Kwok concurred with Chan’s criticisms. “First, every club has already released the players they don’t want,” he said. “Second, even though we can’t register any of our new signings, we still have to pay them. Third, if we don’t have enough players to use for the rest of this season, is our only option to re-sign the players we’ve already released? This is a triple whammy.
“Of course this is entirely the HKFA’s fault. They sent a letter to the clubs with the rules for the summer window without making sure that they were in compliance with FIFA’s rules. Once everyone had made begun preparing their squads in compliance with the HKFA’s guidelines, we all suddenly discovered that (the HKFA) were wrong.
“Try to put yourselves in the shoes in of a player who just signed with a new club and now, because of the HKFA’s ‘own goal’, they can’t play for a half year.”
Kwok suggested that if the HKFA is unable to get an exemption from FIFA, they should terminate the rest of the league season. “At R&F, our position is that the HKFA should cancel the rest of the league season so that the clubs will not have to suffer the consequences of their mismanagement. We’ll play the cup finals and that’s it. If FIFA disagrees (with this plan), then declare the entire season over, which would be best case scenario for all parties.”
Other representatives, such as Southern chairman Chan Man-chun, openly mused about pulling out from the restart if his club’s new players were not able to participate. The Aberdeeners had terminated the contracts of four foreign players in April to allow them to return home early, and in order for the club to cut costs. The club has since signed Stefan Pereira and Sasaki Shu as their replacements.
Ng blasts HKFA over mistranslation
Kitchee president Ken Ng revealed that at Tuesday’s meeting, it was discovered that the HKFA had mistranslated five of FIFA’s directives which may have lead to the confusion over eligibility rules. “We didn’t doubt the HKFA’s ability to translate (from English to Chinese) so we followed the regulations as they were translated and signed players accordingly,” he said. “When we compared the Chinese quotation to the original English version, we discovered that there were several errors.”
Ng expressed frustration with the episode and described it as consistent with the way that the HKFA operates. “Their attitude is ‘You can say whatever you want, but we don’t care. We’ll do what we want and if there are any problems, you’re on your own.’ They never do any introspection when they get it wrong.
“This shouldn’t have happened. It was wrong of them to release an incorrect translation of the regulations in the first place, but their sloppiness towards everything makes it even worse.”
After Tuesday’s meeting, HKFA chairman Pui Kwan-kay confirmed that the HKFA would, indeed, seek an exemption and hoped to hear back from FIFA by the end of the month. He stated that Hong Kong deserved an exemption due to the fact that most clubs sign players to one year contracts. Because the season was supposed to end on 31 May, many clubs were left with contracts that had expired and had already decided ahead of time, which players they wished to retain and which players to pursue.
While the chairman denied that any discrepancies in the translations were discussed during the meeting, he acknowledged that if the HKFA were unable to gain an exemption, it would lead to even greater embarrassment as clubs may field fewer than the full 18 on their matchday squad.
FIFA has proposed to allow clubs to use academy players to fill the vacancies left by players whose contract expires before their domestic season can be completed. Ng did not rule out this possibility for Kitchee, telling the media that he does not expect FIFA to grant an exemption. He disclosed that his club had signed six new players thus far and that the Bluewaves would honour their contractual obligation to pay those players, even if they cannot be registered until next season.
When asked if he would demand compensation from the HKFA, he sighed with exasperation. “What can you say?” he asked. “You can say whatever you want to these people and none of it will matter. What can you do when you have to deal with the HKFA?”
Restart tentatively scheduled, format to stay the same
Pui confirmed that the season is tentatively scheduled to resume on 22 August and will end on 27 September. The new season will begin shortly thereafter. No word was given on when the cup finals would take place, nor whether the September international window had been cancelled by FIFA.
He confirmed the Sapling Cup competition will be retained for the 2020-21 season after much push back by the coaches. The HKFA also determined that it would not adopt a triple round robin league structure for next season.
In regard to the foreign quota, one advocate for an increase was Pegasus chairman Steven Lo. “We proposed that each club be able to register up to six foreigners and play five of them,” He said. “But our caveat is that these players must come from either the top 100 nations in the world or have played in one of the top leagues for at least a year, so as to improve the standard of our league.”
While Pui reiterated Tuesday that the board of directors had already voted against increasing the quota, he agreed to present Lo’s proposal to the board next week. “His idea is to attract higher calibre foreigners,” the chairman described. “If he can find such players, then it’s worth discussing. It’s like, back in the day when South China signed Nicky Butt and Mateja Kežman. These players brought in new fans and renewed interest in the local game.
“If he can find these types of players again, then we’ll consider it. But if you’re bringing in ordinary foreigners at the expense of minutes for local players, then we won’t.”
Pui ended by expressing hope that the government would soon relax restrictions on gatherings and that football stadiums could be reopened as soon as possible.
Coaches lament loss of district clubs, empathize with the players
Friday’s announcement that both Tai Po and Yuen Long would no longer participate in the Premier League left many in the Hong Kong football community saddened.
“Over the past five to ten years, in almost every year, there’s been at least one district club in the top flight,” said Kenneth Kwok, who coached at both clubs last season. “At every one of their home matches, you will get a significant number of fans from that district who turn up. In addition, every player will invite their friends and family to come out and support them which amounts to another hundred fans or so.
“With these two clubs gone, that means there will be one less reason for people to turn up. I’m worried that this will lead to a decrease in attendance for years to come.”
Kwok, who is rumoured to have accepted the Pegasus job, confirmed that many players have reached out to him for help. But, he admitted, that it would be difficult for players to find jobs as only six clubs will participate in the restart.
“All the players can do is try and wait this out. But for those who really want to remain professional footballers, I really hope that they’ll show determination and try to return once the market is better.”
Fung Hoi-man, who coached with Kwok at Tai Po, has also been busy with trying to find new clubs for his former players. “Not including foreigners, I’ve only been able to help two or three find clubs,” he confided. “It might be even more difficult next season because with one less team is one less opportunity.”
Both coaches said that several of their former players have already begun looking for careers outside of football, with some becoming part-time Uber drivers while others have chosen to leave football entirely to become insurance agents.
Fung did, however, confirm that his other club, Hoi King, would not seek promotion. Resources Capital, who are set to go up next season, have stated that they would use a majority of the same players they used in the First Division. The club does not anticipate adding more than three new players to their squad.
Many players in Hong Kong willingly sacrifice more stable careers, and even higher paying jobs, in order to continue their dream of playing professional football. Switching professions, even temporarily, may cause these players to pause and rethink whether they want to return to football. Given the climate, it is likely that the Premier League will see many new faces next season while many older ones disappear, perhaps forever.